Thursday, August 26, 2010

Publishing Beyond the Big Apple: San Francisco

A minor character in a great musical (prizes for the person who knows it) once insisted, “New York is the center of everything.” The lead character, and increasingly myself, has to respond, "New York is the center of New York!”

It's easy to believe that, if you want a job in book publishing, you must submit yourself to the will of New York City. You may pay high rents and endure long crowded commutes, but the trade-off is that you will be at the epicenter of the publishing business. The bulk of the major houses--and some increasingly spectacular independent publishers--have their offices based in Manhattan and Brooklyn. But with the proliferation of online media, and the changing landscape of contemporary publishing, other cities are quickly becoming literary meccas in their own right.

As the first of what I hope will be a series of installments looking at the fruits of publishing outside the Big Apple, here's a quick glimpse of our first literary city: San Francisco.
San Francisco has lots of things to recommend it: long storied history, beautiful architecture, fantastic food, brilliant professors at great universities, and a culture entirely distinct from the rest of California. The crispness of the air and the lovely citizens of the city already made it a welcome destination for me over the past weekend. But what I really fell in love with was the literary scene.
The locus of San Fran's literary history sits between North Beach and Chinatown, a neighborhood that houses the former Montgomery Street residence of Allen Ginsberg (whose New York apartment just went on the market), the site of the Golden Era, the city's first literary journal (which had Mark Twain and Bret Harte as regular writers), the Black Cat Cafe, the bohemian cafe where John Steinbeck, Truman Capote and William Saroyan hung out, and Vesuvio Cafe, the bar where both Gregory Corso and Jack Kerouac were kicked out (and where Dylan Thomas once inadvertently spent the night in a booth). These locations are literally around the corner from one of the best bookstores in the city, the famed City Lights.
A sign above the door to the main fiction shelves reads "Abandon All Despair, Ye Who Enter Here." And it couldn't be more correct--City Lights is the mother of all independent bookstores, with a huge selection of fiction and non-fiction, and, in its third floor annex, a room dedicated to the Beat writers and poets who made the city their home. Photographs of Ginsberg, Kerouac, Saroyan, and Hunter S. Thompson cover the walls, and every major author who has spent time in the city appears on these shelves.
But San Francisco isn't a literary city whose reputation is based solely on its history; remarkably, the city can boast about the plethora of contemporary critics and writers reside there. In a terrific map made available by the organization 826 Valencia (founded by Dave Eggers and N'nive Calegari in 2002), you can find a list of over 70 independent, used, and rare bookstores, as well as over 26 publishers (which includes Artemis Press, Chronicle Books, McSweeney's, and Ten Speed Press) and 36 journals and magazines (including The Believer, Mother Jones, Threepenny Review, and Zoetrope). Recent additions to this esteemed roster of literary attractions include Stephen Elliot's cultural site, and events like LitQuake and Alternative Press Expo keep the city moving into the online media era.

With five major and utterly distinct literary communities--North Beach, Chinatown, The Mission, The Fillmore, and the Haight--and with hundreds of writers and artists throughout the city, it's no wonder that people would come to the city by the bay to appreciate literature. As 826 Valencia's map notes, "Today, maybe, it's sunny. The next draft of your manuscript can wait until the fog rolls in at 4:00pm. So go out, see something inspiring, then come home and start on chapter two. San Francisco literary history is a work in progress."

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